Exit Bryant Gumbel, Unprofessional Journalist

Exit Bryant Gumbel, Unprofessional Journalist
by L. Brent Bozell III
January 2, 1997

Pop the champagne corks: the 15-year tenure of arrogant liberal Bryant Gumbel as host of NBC's "Today" show is over. While NBC, fighting to keep Gumbel from defecting to another network, geared up its public-relations machine to pile up the media tributes, something important needs to be said: Gumbel is the very model of unprofessional journalism.

Some media watchers would suggest - and I would agree - that morning-show interviewers aren't expected to be objective. They're meant to ask tough devil's advocate questions designed to elicit the most informative response. But it is implicitly understood that this hardball approach would be applied to both sides.

For Gumbel, it never is so. Take Gumbel's question to House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt on the morning Republicans took control of Congress: "You called Gingrich and his ilk, your words, 'trickle-down terrorists who base their agenda on division, exclusion, and fear.' Do you think middle-class Americans are in need of protection from that group?" Gumbel didn't ask whether Gephardt was being uncivil or too harshly partisan. He tossed a softball.

A devil's-advocate interviewer wouldn't have interviewed radical black Rep. Maxine Waters a year after the Los Angeles riots, as Gumbel did, and asked: "If I'm a young black man in South Central L.A., where poverty is rampant and unemployment is skyrocketing, I see that Washington's promises of a year ago have gone unfulfilled, I see that perhaps for a second time, the court's inability to mete out justice in a blind fashion, why shouldn't I vent my anger?" Or suggest to criminal-turned-Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall: "It's been written that being black in America is like being a witness at your own lynching. why didn't your experience make you more resentful than you are today?"

Oh, Gumbel could be tough on black interview subjects - black conservatives, that is. The morning after the 1994 elections, he asked Republican Rep.-elect J.C. Watts: "You're aligned to a party which owes many of its victories to the so-called religious right and other conservative extremists who are historically insensitive to minority concerns. That doesn't bother you?" Gumbel freely equates conservatism with racism. As he proclaimed about his prime-time show "The Racial Attitudes and Consciousness Exam (RACE)" in 1989, "This test is not going to tell you whether you're a racist or a liberal."

In 1989, Gumbel took on Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the longtime ally of Martin Luther King, when Abernathy's book "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down" devoted four pages to King's sexual dalliances. Gumbel first taped an interview with Abernathy (which never aired) that ignored those passages. Then on October 17, Gumbel spent an entire live interview trying to get Abernathy to renounce the truth he'd known first-hand. When Abernathy noted King's exploits were "common knowledge," Gumbel objected: "It would be better stated, perhaps, to say that it was common accusation." When Abernathy said he felt the need to tell the truth, Gumbel admonished him by quoting a movie line: "When the truth collides with a legend, print the legend."

Turning the truth upside down was often a Gumbel signature, especially if the topic was Ronald Reagan. A typical Gumbel history lesson came on January 22, 1992: "The boom years following World War II saw the economy take off, giving rise to the growth of the great American middle class. The rising standard of living meant homes, cars, TVs, college for the kids - all in all, a piece of the American dream. But in the Reagan years, economic erosion set in, so much so that the middle class now finds itself in ever-deepening trouble." Over the years, Gumbel found Reagan responsible for everything from sexual harassment in public housing to flammable pajamas for children.

Gumbel stayed biased to the end. Just a few weeks ago he asked Jimmy Carter: "You write that you prayed more during your four years in office than basically at any time in your life and yet I think it's fair to say, and I hope this doesn't sound too harsh...you are consistently viewed as one of the more ineffective Presidents of modern times...What do you think, if anything, that says about the power of prayer?" Gumbel had a different view with his favorite liberal, Children's Defense Fund lobbyist Marian Wright Edelman, in September: "In light of the new welfare reform bill, do you think that children need prayers more than ever before?"

My prayers notwithstanding, Gumbel isn't going away. The networks are having the most furious bidding war over talent since....George Stephanopoulos publicly pledged to show a bias toward Bill Clinton while signing up as an ABC correspondent last month. At least Gumbel has been a journalistic professional for many years, some might insist. But I'm finding it hard to distinguish one aggressive liberal spin doctor from the other.